Exclusive: First Autistic Presidential Appointee Speaks Out
In December, [Ari Ne’eman] was nominated by President Obama to the National Council on Disability (NCD), a panel that advises the President and Congress on ways of reforming health care, schools, support services and employment policy to make society more equitable for people with all forms of disability.
“Many of the bad things that autistic people struggle with are things that happen to us, rather than things that are bad about being autistic. Why is that an important distinction? I remember reading a blog post from a parent who pointed to two news stories. One was about a mother who had murdered her autistic child because she couldn’t deal with the fact that he wasn’t normal, and the other was about a school aide who had abused a child. And the blogger said, “This is what autism is like. That’s why we need to find a cure.”
I find that kind of thinking despicable: One would think the fault there isn’t with autism, but with abusers and murderers! As long as we confuse bad things that happen to autistic people with what it means to be autistic, we’re not going to be solving the problems that autistic people face in any meaningful way.”
“As a society, our approach to autism is still primarily “How do we make autistic people behave more normally? How do we get them to increase eye contact and make small talk while suppressing hand-flapping and other stims?” The inventor of a well-known form of behavioral intervention for autism, Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who passed away recently, said that his goal was to make autistic kids indistinguishable from their peers. That goal has more to do with increasing the comfort of non-autistic people than with what autistic people really need.
Lovaas also experimented with trying to make what he called effeminate boys normal. It was a silly idea around homosexuality, and it’s a silly idea around autism. What if we asked instead, “How can we increase the quality of life for autistic people?” We wouldn’t lose anything by that paradigm shift. We’d still be searching for ways to help autistic people communicate, stop dangerous and self-injurious behaviors, and make it easier for autistic people to have friends.
But the current bias in treatment — which measures progress by how non-autistic a person looks — would be taken away. Instead of trying to make autistic people normal, society should be asking us what we need to be happy.”